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High-Octane Workstation
For my fourth and last Silicon Graphics computer, I really wanted an Octane! Voilà chose faite ! I’ve waited long enough to snatch the right system when I found it. My requirements were high: a working machine, loaded with HW features, in great cosmetic condition and cheap. I almost forgot, I was looking for the original Octane (not the Octane2). After few years I finally scored a couple of weeks ago this elusive SGI on my want list. First surprise when I had to pick it up: this desk-site workstation weight a ton (~54 lbs. / 25 kg to be precise – 30 x 40 x 35 cm). My Octane has two processors (MIPS R12000 IP30 [32KB Instructions and Data caches] with MIPS R12010 FPUs) paced at 300 MHz. This may seem low compared to PCs of the same era (1997), but performance wise, it is a day and night situation.

Better Than a PC
As we will see it later, the Octane has an extremely well-designed system architecture that scales! So, every major HW node of the workstation works at its nominal performance, especially the CPUs. Therefore, a 300 MHz CPU is never waiting – at least in comparison of a PC processor – on nodes such as the memory of the graphics. That’s what differentiated a PC from a UNIX Workstation! With 2 GB of RAM and three 32GB SCSI HDDs (two UW SCSI QLogic 1040B controllers) the machine is in the top of the range. It is equipped with three graphic cards (Mardi Gras) allowing for a triple-monitor configuration (one IMPACTSR v2 [RA v0, HQ vB, GE11 vB, RE4 vC, PP1 vA, VC3 vA, CMAP vE, Heart vF], and two IMPACTSR v1). Note that it is hard to remove the Octane’s heatsinks without risking damaging the processors/ASICs.

An XBar at its HEART
This is the reason why the board pictures are exhibiting very large heatsinks. Sorry, I do not want the take chances :). At the heart of the Octane, there is a high-bandwidth crossbar (XBar) using a packet based protocol. In the short, each node connected to the XBar can communicate with each other at full bandwidth. Well, that definitively contribute to the performance gap with basic PCs. A total of four XIO slots are available to connect the system’s various nodes. Unfortunately, my Octane didn’t come with a PCI expansion box, so I cannot add, using the PCI-64 bridge, up to three PCI boards. From a physical point of view, the Octane is modular and the CPU/Memory, Graphics, IO, etc. nodes are implemented as boards. Each board slides in the chassis and connects to the baseboard located in the front. You can clearly see the XIO connectors in the photos. As usual, the build quality of the Octane is excellent. And it worth signaling that the Cherokee PSU (~800 W) is still working great after 20 years, making the system silent enough to consider using it next to my desk. An if you wonder which OS runs the Octane: it is the SGI proprietary 64-bit UNIX, IRIX 6.5.
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PRGE 2017
The Portland (OR) Retro Gaming Expo 2017 was a solid edition. This year's attendance is proof that retro gaming is becoming mainstream. Unfortunately, retro computing was on the down-slope compared to the previous years. However, I found a Commodore PET model 4016 to play with for free! I also found an Atari Falcon 30 in pristine condition. Unfortunately it was prices $1200! Madness :)
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Atari 2600
Alongside the Portland Retro Gaming Expo 2017 (OR), there was a nice museum dedicated to the 40 years of the Atari 2600 system. I enjoyed learning about some really rare artefacts and was envious of their wall of games :) Impressive!
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An Indigo Without the 'GO'
For my third Silicon Graphics, I chose the Indy introduce in 1993. This entry level graphic workstation is a great addition to my Indigo and O2. I remember working with my college buddy Vincent on an Indy to benchmark our digital line drawing acceleration method we invented in 97. My Indy is in great working condition and in pretty good shape. Few interesting points: the 24-bit color depth capable graphics card (24-bit XL) has few afterthought jumper wires on the PCB that makes me think it may be an early spin. The second point is that contrary to the other SGIs I’ve interacted with, the Indy is very hard to open. I had to fiddle for 15 minutes and even watch a video on the web to get a clue on how to proceed. Actually, what worked for me is a gap on the bottom front left of the case, where a flat head screwdriver fits and provides the leverage to move the cover few millimeters, allowing finally to slide and lift the cover. The rest of the system is basic: 100 MHz R4000 CPU (IP22 board), R4010 v3.0 FPU, R4000 v3.0 CPU, 48 MB of RAM, and runs IRIX 5.1.1. The connectivity of the machine is impressive for the times, including a massive camera connector, an ISDN and an RJ-45 port (see pictures for details). In addition of the camera, my Indy came with the analog Galileo Video and digital 601 breakout boxes.
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Powell’s Books Retro-Computer Collection
If you live in Stumptown (Portland OR), you must know the Powell’s Books store. At some point in time, there was a separate technical store downtown, dedicated to the really good stuff: science, math, technology, computers, etc. Geekvana! Although they closed that branch a while ago and moved some of its content to the main store, it never was the same again. In 2007, I took a set of pictures of their retro-computer collection exhibited in the technical store among the books. Proof that these guys were serious back then :) Few machines are missing, so if by chance you have pictures, please feel free to share them here! And if you have not seen the collection, well not everyone lives in OR, enjoy browsing the attached pics!
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Toshiba T1200
Toshiba used to be the king of laptops during the 80s-90s. I particularly liked the T3200 with its plasma display ( However, there were few other cool laptops in Toshiba’s lineup. I was personally impressed by the T1000 introduced in 1987, 30 years ago. It was a really small system and weighed a tad less than 3 kg! The advertisement in the press was pretty effective, picturing the system at scale, fitting in a double page. Today, I’ve played with my T1200, also introduced in 1987. Sure, it is bigger and heavier than the T1000, but it is still a remarkable machine.
It is a classic system for the era: powered by an Intel 80C86 processor (paced @ 4.77 MHz or 9.54 MHz – user selectable via a switch), has 1 MB of RAM (640 MB usable by MS-DOS 3.30, and 384 as a RAM drive). The LCD display has a pretty god quality (640x200 pixels, 80 x 25 characters) with a correct backlight. On the storage side, the T1200 has a 720 kB 3.5" floppy-drive and a 20 MB hard drive, both internal. Everything works well on my model except the HDD. Too bad, because it is a custom model designed for Toshiba and manufactured by JVC (Victor Company of Japan). It will be hard to replace! It is interesting that, part of the RAM was powered by its dedicated battery and could be used as a small persistent storage. There are many pictures attached to this post, so if you are interested to have a peek inside the beast, you may want to click on the first picture and then scroll thru them. Have a great WE!
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8-bit black pixel magic
Have you ever spent hours to design a sprite? This is of course if your computer had sprites! Otherwise, it was discrete pixels. When I used to do exactly that, there was no blitters and high-resolution only existed in monochrome… But this was the work of a bedroom programmer learning to code. During the same time, the Pros were unleashing their black pixel magic to entertain us. If you love pixel art, you may be interested by these two coffee table books!

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Loud as A Game Boy
The Game Boy (classic) was a revolutionary personal and portable game console. Perfect match with the Tetris game, it was a hit in 1989. I recently bought one of the color models released by Nintendo in 1995 (during the Play it Loud! campaign). Well, I chose the clear model which doesn’t really qualify for a color. But I like clear cases because they give us an insight into the beast (without having to open it up). Gosh, I forgot how small and bad the display was. But I reassure you, after listening few notes of the Tetris Type-A tune, I was back in 89!
‘Memba the add?
Another clear cased device:
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HP-Portable Plus - Part II Odd Battery Configuration
A couple of weeks ago, I shared about my HP-110 (or Portable Plus) laptop (see link below). I didn’t address the battery question at the time for the sake of clarity and also because I needed some time to rebuilt a battery pack, as close to the original design as possible. Before getting into some details, I want to share my surprise. Indeed, I’ve expected a well integrate battery pack, à-la HP. And it is not what I found. Therefore, I am wondering if this is an after-market battery? But in the same time, it seems too elaborated for that. I do not know. What I did noticed though, is that in the service manual of the previous version (not the + model), the battery depiction resembles more to three D-cell batteries packed together. Maybe an HP employee/expert can shade some light on this. Nonetheless, the battery – an SLA (Sealed Lead Acid) battery – was dead. Without load, it had barely a voltage of 0.9, which was not a good omen. Indeed, after trying charging it for a day with a 6V/1A charger, it didn’t keep any of it. So, I was good for a replacement. Of course, HP parts cannot be bought anymore, and the few articles found on the web claiming that you could still source them in some random stores turned out to be dead ends to me. The original battery in my system has a Panasonic LCR6V2.4P at its core (6V, 2.4Ah/20HR. cycle use: 7.3~7.5V, standby use: 6.8~6.9V, Initial current < 0.8A). You can still easily find equivalent models in any battery stores. One important detail is the geometry of the leads (or connectors). Indeed, the odd montage HP seemed to use requires to pick the right one: with the leads aligned and not offset. What HP did next, is to fit snug this battery in the battery compartment using a rubber pad. Nothing really odd about it until this point. But, they also stick an epoxy board with two screws sticking out of them on one side of the battery. This board is held in place with a double-sided tape. The screws are positioned in such a way that they align, once the battery is shoveled into the case, with two double leads coming out from the motherboard. These are screwed onto the board with the screws and nuts. But this doesn’t make a circuit. So, in addition, the positive lead of the battery, which by geometry is at 90 degrees and at the other side from the screws, is connected to the “positive” screw using a thin metal strip, glued all along the side of the battery. It is then covered with some sort of electric tape for isolation. The same trick is used for the negative lead, but since it is much closer to its screw, the metal strip is very short. Add to this some padding between the leads, and you have an idea of how this pack looks. This design works well, but seems a bit off compared to the classic HP build. Regardless, I had to rebuild a similar package. I decided to drop the original metal strips since they were too damaged during the dismounting (that glue is really strong, and the strips are thin). I’ve decided to used adhesive copper tape to replace the metal strips. Instead of using plain copper tape and cover it with electric tape, I’ve preferred using some Tapewire (other brands exist for sure). These tapes are used in priority to wire speakers by running and sticking the tape wires onto the walls. The tape is covered with an insulator that one can paint over easily. The tape is thin enough so it is not visible, and in this particular use case, it doesn’t prevent the battery to fit into its compartment. The gauge of the tapes is enough to supply the required current to the computer, so all went well. Because this particular tape model has two separate conductors, I could split it into two strips and use one for the long positive trip and the other for the short negative one. Everything worked well, and my HP-110 is ready to go all over the world … if needed. Last but not the least, if you plan to fiddle with an HP-110 battery pack, think remove the battery jumper (on OFF position) on the motherboard.
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HP Portable Plus – part I
Hewlett-Packard used to design and manufacture great systems. Today, I am pleased to share with you my experience with the HP-110 a.k.a. Portable Plus laptop. I bought this computer many years ago, as a second hand, and unearthed it recently. It was about time! This specific model was manufactures in America in 1989 (SN: 2903A33602, PN:45711FK (F=512 KB, no modem, K=English-International US). Sure, a 28 years old machine doesn’t qualify for CES 2017, but there are some things to learn here. First. the HP-110 is part of the 100 family that contains the HP-150 with its remarkable touchscreen technology (using infrared emitters/receives mounted in a frame around the screen) and the LX palmtops. To me, it really fits between the HP-150 and the IPC I’ve presented last year (see link to the first port of the series at the end of the post). An earlier version – the Portable – was launched in 1984. I needed to give all this ancestry information just to tell that the HP-110 is really a lab/field machine, even though it was targeting the traveling business users. While it had all the features and characteristics for a dream field machine, it had no chances against the laptops to still to come. Indeed, the machine is running MS-DOS 2.11 but is not a PC compatible. Therefore, to run on the HP-110, applications may need to be adapted. Only few PC BIOS services are supported, so if your app is hitting the BIOS or the video hardware, then it may fail miserably. In fact, only 17 IBM function calls are supported in the HP BIOS. But that’s not an issue for two reasons. First, the machine comes pre-loaded with communications and productivity applications in ROM (Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Word just to quote the most important ones). And yes, HP aficionados, the PAM (Personal Applications Manager) is your default shell. Think about PAM as an integration layer sitting between the DOS and the applications. Second, this laptop has no floppy disk unit. Instead, the main memory –battery backed-up – can be partitioned between the main memory – available to applications – and a RAM or virtual disk. Unfortunately, with a limited amount of memory (let’s say somewhere between 128 and 256 KB), you need to be wise about this setting. However, the system is not a closed brick. Indeed, it can communicate either via the serial port or the optional modem (300 – 1200 bauds, not authorized in all countries). Last but not the least, the unit comes with HP-IL controller. HP-IL, if you are not familiar with it, is similar to today’s USB, where you can link together multiple devices arranged in a loop (interconnected via the HP-IL loop). This doesn’t come as a surprised, as with many HP computers of the era, the HP-110 was really at home in the lab, where your computer need to talk to measurement devices and remote storage. For the anecdote, HP sold a battery operated floppy disk drive that could be used in the field via HP-IL. For the Portable, HP used the same expansion drawer approach that made the success of its HP-80 family computers – I will need to present here these marvels someday. The HP-110 has two of these drawers. One for the ROM modules (12 slots total) and one for the RAM (and expansions). The ROM drawer has empty spots, and nothing should prevent one to pick a compatible application and burn it into an EEPROM to use it with the HP-110. The other characteristics of the system are as follows: Harris 80C86 CPU @ 5.33 MHz, 128 KB CMOS RAM, 192 KB CMOS ROM. The display is a non-backlit monochrome LCD – with a non-PC resolution of 16 x 80 characters (480 x 128 pixels). The screen contrast can be adjusted and is pleasant to used. Unfortunately, it is pretty hard to take quality pictures of it. So please do not judge the machine by the poor quality of my screen photos/videos. The HP BIOS allows applications to perform text operations in graphics mode and had support of HP Roman-8, a richer alternative to ASCII. An aftermarket option could be used to add a back-lit, but at the expense of the battery life. Speaking of which, the HP-110 is a beast (33 x 25.4 x 7.3 cm), weighting only 4 kg (8.5 pounds)! Part of this weight is the SLA (sealed Lead Acid) battery. Fully charged, it can power the HP-110 for 20 hours! In sleep mode, the machine draws 285 uA vs. 125 mA powered. Note that the computer has advanced power saving features – which are pretty exceptional for the period. After 28 years, the battery of my system died. In a future post, I will show how I brought the machine back to life. Finally, I must stress again the exceptional quality of the documentation. In contrast, today’s machines’ documentation – if any –, is a pity! There is plenty photos and videos for you to enjoy! (there is an HP-110 at the beginning, and an IPC later on).
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